You'd be forgiven for not knowing much about the PC Engine or the TurboGrafx-16, two names for the same console, a console that made a big splash in Japan in the '80s and '90s but that didn't make the same kind of impact over here after it arrived late and came under-supported. Konami believes in second chances, however, and in collaboration with hardware specialist Hori the company has resurrected this under-represented home console. It returns to us in the form of a mini console, ready to take on similar offerings from Sega, Nintendo, and even the old C64. So, how does it fare when compared to the competition, and did the console head west too late just like its predecessor did back in the day?
To find out whether it's all just a little bit of history repeating, let's start with the hardware itself, which looks good and feels well-made. If you've got a growing collection of mini consoles on display then the PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini will not look out of place, even if its dull grey finish means that it doesn't have quite the same crisp visual appeal as the NES Mini, nor the iconic curves of the Mega Drive.
The controller is a particular highlight, with speed switches that you can flick between during certain games. It's not the most satisfying of solutions in hindsight, but it was a novel approach to giving you more functionality and it's an appreciated curiosity here. More important is the feel of the controller, and in that respect, we can give it nothing other than a resounding thumbs-up thanks to its satisfying and responsive buttons and the 3M long cable that gave us the freedom to play from across the room. There is, however, a solitary issue and it's a doozy: there's only one controller boxed-in with the console, which makes a second an added expense that you'll need to consider.
The console itself is stuffed full of games, but the majority of them are in Japanese and that makes them less tempting and in some cases downright impenetrable. We spent a fair amount of time looking through the PC Engine titles and during our trawl we came to the conclusion that beyond appealing to retro enthusiasts and Japanophiles, this console is an absolute must-have if you're into shmups. While there's some crossover with TurboGrafx-16 versions of a few titles, both the Japanese and English language parts of the mini console are well-stocked with excellent shooters, and they come at you from all angles, too. With classics like R-Type and Gradius included alongside less well-known but still quality additions such as Soldier Blade, it's fair to say that the quality level is high.
While many of the games will be entirely new to you (as they were to us), there are plenty of gems in there just waiting to be discovered. We've always struggled with the pace of retro RPGs and that hasn't changed here, but text-heavy games are in the minority here (and we didn't even bother with the text-heavy Japenese games for obvious reasons). There's also good variety in terms of the genres, with racing games, platformers, and even a fun old pinball game called Alien Crush. There's also a nice selection of Bomberman titles in there, too, and that's never, ever a bad thing, although it does make the omission of a second controller all the more frustrating.
With 57 games included on the console (including some duplicates), there are too many to go through individually, but we noted some interesting and highly playable titles during our time. Of course, there are some duds in there too, such as a ropey platformer called J.J. & Jeff that we never want to look at again, but for every disappointing experience, there's a couple of great shooters and two or three intriguing or curious titles to compensate, with early turn-based tactics game Military Madness, traffic dodging racer Victory Run, and hockey mask-wearing platformer Splatterhouse providing a bit of variety. In the end, we spent more time - and probably had more fun - playing around with the TurboGrafx-16 games, but that's possibly because there was no language barrier.
For all of its positive aspects, the PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini isn't cheap, and the basic unit will set you back around £100. What's more, you're going to want that second controller, don't forget (and there's even the option to have up to five players at once via a multitap, although getting that set up more than doubles the cost of the console). With such a steep price tag, the quality of the emulation is important and on that front, we have zero complaints thanks to the smoothness of our experience across all the games we tried.
There are five different aspect ratios to choose from (including a lovely one for the TuboExpress that's probably too small to be your go-to option, but what a lovely piece of fan service), and you can run everything through a CRT if you want your pristine flatscreen television to party like it's 1999. That said, the UI can be a bit clunky to navigate, and not enough effort has been made to explain the use of symbols for each game. Switching between consoles - which is a fairly big part of the experience - is also given very little real-estate on the screen, which seems an odd choice all things considered.
We played the included games for as long as we could and our biggest takeaway wasn't the often lovely pixel graphics (and some of the games still look great despite their old age), but rather the stellar music. Sure, there are some cheesy synth themes to endure, but some of the in-game soundtracks are ear-meltingly good and if chiptunes are your jam then you'll find dozens of great examples here.
We really enjoyed spending a couple of days with the PC Engine CoreGrafx Mini, but it's hard to ignore the price tag and the omission of the second controller. The pricing and its history make this a niche product that lacks the same appeal as our favourite mini console, the Mega Drive Mini, but the number of decent games included (you'll find the full line-up here) and the care that has gone into its construction makes it a great option for both retro gamers and shooter fans looking to take a trip down memory lane.
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